If you asked most comic book fans to name a Canadian superhero the first name out of their mouths will be Wolverine. Possibly the most important comic book character created in the last forty years, Wolverine was the unpredictable break out star of the 70’s X-Men reboot who became one of the superstars of Marvel Comics. Some might talk about Alpha Flight – the Canadian based superhero team published by Marvel Comics which have maintained a cult following since the 1980’s. A few others may remember Captain Canuck – a publishing oddity from the mid 70’s. But after that, most people would be stumbling to try to name another Canadian superhero. Oddly enough, Canada has a colorful history of publishing superhero comics that most fans, both Canadian and American, have little knowledge of. During the 1940’s there was a Canadian superhero boom when American comics were banned from crossing the border into Canada. Characters like Nelvana of the Northern Lights, The Penguin, Johnny Canuck, Purple Rider, Red Rover and Phantom Rider were published by a string of Canadian based comic book companies that sprung up during WWII. However, as quickly as the Canadian comic boom came, it fell again before the beginning of the 1950’s. In the years that followed most Canadian comic creators brought their talents to American companies, while others working in independent comics seemed to abandon superhero comics all together and lean towards biographical comics.
However, in recent years interest in the “Canadian Whites,” as collectors call this unique Golden Age Canadian comics, has increased and fans and collectors have been sharing information and rediscovering a long forgotten part of Canadian pop culture. Now the history of Canadian Superheroes is about to come alive in a brand new documentary, Lost Heroes, which is set to premier in March 2014 on Super Channel, and which will be featured at various comic conventions and film festivals across North America. Three years in the making, Lost Heroes is directed by Toronto based filmmaker Will Pascoe and a dedicated team of people who have put hours of hard work and passion into a unique project focusing on the past, present and future of Canadian comics, and opening up a doorway for more people to learn about Canada’s forgotten comic book legacy.
I had the opportunity to speak to Will Pascoe about Lost Heroes just as plans were being made for its debut at the Royal Theater in Toronto on March 1st, 2014. Our talk went beyond the film and comic books, but also about how we define ourselves as Canadians, and how that has affected the pop culture industry.
Sam Tweedle: Lost Heroes has taken you years to put together. I first heard about the project about three years ago. How long of a process has it been for you and your team?
Will Pascoe: Well, it’s been one of these things where we got green lit by Super Channel but we didn’t have all the money in place to make it. So we had to go out and find more money, which my producer, Tony Wosk, was able to do. In the meantime, I got hired on a show in the States called The Finder for FOX, so I had to move to LA on very short notice to do that. Since we didn’t have all our money we thought we’d find a way to get the ball rolling slowly, which we were able to do because we had a little money from Super Channel. We were able to do preliminary shooting at the 2011 Comic Con in San Diego. I drove down to San Diego and Tony and my director of photography, Andrew Oxley, flew down from Toronto with all the gear and we spent four days in San Diego shooting interviews and getting lots of convention footage. That was kind of our first actual shooting of the film, in the summer of 2011. I wrapped up The Finder in January 2012, and when I got back to Toronto we kind of hit the ground running and started interviewing people. We went up to Ottawa to the National Archives and shot some stuff there and we did interviews in Montreal and Toronto. We had a rough cut in January of 2013 and it looked pretty good, but it was too long. It was longer than anyone wanted it to be. It could have been a three hour movie because we had so much material. The challenging thing became what heroes we include in the movie, what characters we exclude, and how to limit it, because there are dozens of Canadian superheroes. We had a wealth of characters, and a wealth of writers and artists to profile, and there was just no way that we could do it in a two hour film. So we had to scale it back, and we had to make some tough choices.
Sam: So what did you keep, and how did you make the choice to include them?
Will: We wanted to certainly hit on the characters that if you had any knowledge of Canadian superhero/comic book history that you would have heard of. Captain Canuck was an obvious choice. Nelvana of the Northern Lights was an absolute, because she was arguably the world’s first female super heroine. We felt that had to do Alpha Flight and Wolverine, because people who didn’t specifically know about Canadian super heroes would kind of have an inkling that Wolverine was from somewhere up in Canada. I was adamant that I wanted to profile today’s artists and the next generation of up and coming artists who might create the next great Canadian superhero. That became the last third of the film. Then we had all these issues and debates amongst ourselves as if we should get into regional superheroes, like Captain Newfoundland, or is that to meniscal and should we stick to characters that are more national in nature. So we had many many discussions about this. The real tough thing was to limit the 1940’s Canadian superheroes because there was so many of them. There were five years of Canadian publishing goodness that there was just a wealth of characters. We couldn’t track down some of the creators or their descendants, and we couldn’t get pictures of them, and we really wanted to be able to profile the character and creator. We also stuck to our guns and made it very exclusive to just superheroes. We didn’t do Dixon of the Mounted because he wasn’t a superhero in a traditional sense. He was more of a traditional cowboy RCMP type guy. He was a really good police officer and not heroic in the sense that he had powers, or wore a cape, or had a secret identity or anything like that. Some of the footage and the characters that we didn’t use are going to be put on the Lost Heroes web-site because they were part of the movie at one time. It’s not like we just like we slapped something together for the web-site. They’ll be nice little elegant pieces form the film.
Sam: Is the Canadian comic industry something you had a personal interest in, or was this documentary an assignment for you?
Will: I had a personal interest in it. While researching something else I came across something on Google about Canadian comic books superheroes. I clicked on it and two hours later I came out of this vortex of really interesting stuff. I realized that it was a fascinating story. The story of the Canadian Whites, and why they were created, and how Canada had this golden age of Canadian superheroes that nobody knew about today is fascinating. I realized it was a story that people should hear and see. So I talked to Tony and I pitched it to him. He thought it sounded cool and that people would want to see it, so I said “How do we do this.” He said “Walk into Super Channel and see if they think the same thing.” So we did and they liked it. Super Channel is our conditioning broadcaster, and we were lucky enough to get the Rogers Documentary fund to help us to complete the financing.
Sam: The popularity and value of the Canadian Whites have increased a lot in the last couple of years. There seems to be a revived interest and a cult following for these books and characters.
Will: You’re absolutely right. One of the disappointing things is that it is only a Canadian based resurgence. When we were at the San Diego Comic Con we kept going around to various booths selling comics and we’d ask “Do you have any Canadian comics” and they’d look at us with these blank looks. The collectors market for these 1940’s characters is, for the most part, very Canadian. We did find a few collectors in the United States and Europe who helped us find certain issues that were in their collections. It was kind of cool in that respect that we were able to reach the majority of collectors who were willing to help us out fill in holes that the National Archives didn’t have. The National Archives primarily has a lot of the Bell Features Comics, but some of the other publishing companies they didn’t have. I hope that maybe our film will bring more people into the discussion of the Canadian comics and their creators because there were a lot of talented people involved in [this industry] and I think it’s a shame that it’s been lost. I hope this film opens people’s eyes and makes them think back at our own pop culture history.
Sam: The Canadian comic industry in the 1940’s was massive, but the books are so rarely seen today. How do you account for the rarity of the Canadian Whites?
Will: This comes out in the movie. Back then comics were like currency for kids and they traded them. One kid would take a Freelance for a Johnny Canuck and then that kid would trade that Freelance to someone else. So they really got used and abused and horded by kids. So a lot of them didn’t survive intact over the last seventy years, and certainly not an entire collection.
Sam: Where you able to track down any of the people who worked on the Canadian whites?
Will: Yes. We were able to talk to Jack Tremblay, who is one of the last surviving Whites guys and who lives in Montreal. We spent a couple of hours with him and he just had one story after another. He was fifteen or sixteen when he started drawing comics for Bell Features. He lived in Montreal, so he would just mail his pages in and then they would telegraph him a check a week later. But because he was sixteen he didn’t have a bank account, so he would sign it over to his parents because he was still living at home. When we knew we were able to get a guy from that era that was willing to talk to us it was one of those great moments, because here was a guy who was one of the people who started this great thing. One of the guys who drew one of the first Canadian comic books. That was really exciting for me to sit down with him.
Sam: Was he surprised that there were still people that were interested in his career as a comic artist, and that you were there talking to him?
Will: Yes he was. We had managed to get a copy of his very first issue. We did an interview with his son, Rick Tremblay, who is also a Montreal artist, and we put them on camera at the same time. Well Rick held up the comic and Jack said “Oh my goodness. I haven’t seen that in decades.” He got his start where they had this contest in the comic where they said “Draw the last panel in this comic and you can wear a pair of roller skates.” So he drew the last panel of the story, mailed it in, he won the roller skates, and in the next issue they had the list of who one it and the runners up. So back in those days they’d put his name and full address in the comic, which you’d never do nowadays. So Bell Features asked him “Do you have anything else” and he said “Yes. I have this little thing I’ve been doing called Crash Carson.” So they told him to send it in and they published it. He became this little legend in the neighborhood and the school yard because all of a sudden people were buying comics that had his name in it. He’d get a lot of pressure from kids saying “What’s coming next” and he’d say “I don’t know. I haven’t drawn it yet.” Twenty years from now we won’t be able to do an interview like that because all the people from that era will be lost to us. It’s kind of nice that we were able to catch him and get him in the film.
Sam: Will there be a DVD release of the film?
Will: We have had a lot of people asking that on our facebook page. Yes, there will be a DVD release. We’re not sure when but it should be within the year. It premiers on March 3rd on Super Channel, and we’ll be doing little screenings across the country. Groups have asked to screen the film at a local theater, or at a festival. Because of when we completed the film we were too late to submit it to the Toronto film festival, and other film festivals, which take place in the fall. We weren’t able to do the traditional launch at TIFF, so now our mindset is just to get the film out to as many people as we can, because we’ve been making this film for three years and people have waiting for it.
Sam: Yeah. There is a big buzz about Lost Heroes and there has been for a while. It’s something that you hear about if you are connected at all to Canadian comic book fandom. How have you been able to maintain that buzz?
Will: I don’t think we did anything. It’s just a product of the fans that are into comics and into Canadian pop culture. They’ve created the buzz themselves and they want to see the film. I think part of it has also been from the collectors who scanned stuff for us and they want to see the film. If there is a buzz it’s kind of almost in house from the people who helped us out, encouraged us and have cheered us on. We don’t have a publicist that has been going to shows and conventions and doing stuff on our behalf, so any buzz is totally generated by the community itself, which is really gratifying to know that it’s not a product of manufactured PR but from a genuine interest from people who want to see the film.
Sam: What do you think of Canada’s continuous attempt to adopt Superman as a “Canadian superhero” because Joe Schuster was from Canada? I’ve always found Superman to be distinctly American. It’d be like trying to claim Doctor Who as a Canadian creation because his creator, Sydney Newman, was from Toronto but there is little doubt that Doctor Who is British. What are your feelings about this?
Will: That’s one of the things that we wrestled with when making this film. What is it that makes a Canadian Superhero? John Byrne created Alpha Flight, but he doesn’t consider himself Canadian anymore. We tried to interview him but he shot us down because he doesn’t identify himself with being Canadian. Harlan Ellison has a huge collection of Canadian Whites. He’s not Canadian, but he has this huge collection in Los Angeles. It’s strange. The Northern Light, created by James Whaley and Jim Craig just before Captain Canuck, was originally a rejected He-Man storyline. Does that mean that he is less Canadian because he was based on a rejected story for an American character? So it’s a really tough question because what does it mean to be a Canadian? When do you put the flag on yourself? I don’t know. A lot of these guys from the 1940s went down to the States and worked on Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman. Does that make them less Canadian because they spent the majority of their career working on American comics and the Canadian characters disappeared? I don’t know if there’s a perfect answer for that question because it’s one of the things, as a country, we struggle with. What does it mean to be Canadian? Does that mean that we are just different from Americans? Do we define ourselves by our differences? Are we only Canadian when we can compare and contrast it from someone else? I think most people would be hard pressed about what makes them Canadian without, in a negative way, contrasting them from the US. One of the things that comes out in the film as well is that, potentially, one of the reasons that Canadian superheroes have struggled to maintain an audience is because, as a nation, we are not a very violent in your face people.
Sam: You’re right. That is very interesting.
Will: Superheroes, by their very nature, solve things by punching and not by diplomacy. So to create a superhero you have to be a little bit “punch first, talk later” and that’s just not in our national psyche.
Sam: Who is your favorite Canadian character? Did a certain character become special to you?
Will: It’s tough. I love Wolverine. He’s just a fascinating character with that berserker rage and that darkness that hovers around him.
Sam: I read once that Marvel didn’t expect much from Wolverine when they first created him and he was sort of a throw away character. If they knew he was going to be so popular they’d have probably never made him a Canadian.
Will: Well most people outside of Canada wouldn’t necessarily think that Wolverine is Canadian. There is this misconception amongst people who think he’s from Alaska. A lot of people kind of think that first. I’m also partial to Nelvana because I think it’s cool that Canada had the first female super hero, and that she’s from the North and is very Canadian in that aspect – with the ice and the land and being a part of the Inuit culture. That was bold for the 1940’s because even in America you didn’t see them embracing Native American characters. The fact that we created one from the north that was part Inuit and tied to the Northern Lights was very smart. I’m also partial to Captain Canuck because he was the one who broke through in the 70’s and became an iconic thing for a lot of people. Those three are exciting for me, but it’s hard to pick one. It changes every month.
Lost Heroes premiers on Monday March 3rd on. For more information on the film, and to join the discussion of Canada’s comic book industry, find Lost Heroes on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/LostHeroesMovie and follow Lost Heroes on twitter at @LostHeroesMovie. A fascinating time in Canadian pop culture, make sure to check this film out and stay tuned to PCA for more information about the upcoming DVD release. No matter what country you are from, the history of Canada’s comic industry is a fascinating story waiting to be discovered by comic fans everywhere.